The best music tech gear of 2011: synths, DAWs, plug-ins, keyboards, apps and more
15th Dec 2011 | 12:00
Best tech gear of 2011
As we reach the end of 2011, the music technology market is more diverse than ever. While the computer remains the hub of most people’s workflow, we’re also seeing more and more capable standalone hardware solutions. And of course, it’s now possible to make tunes on your phone or tablet.
This year’s best gear round-up celebrates this diversity; whether you’re sitting in a studio, standing on stage or commuting to work, great tools have been released to help you create music.
We’re guessing that you won’t agree with all of our selections (some of the calls were very tough to make) but we’d love to hear about the gear that you’ve rated highest this year, so do let us know.
Software synth of the year
There was a slight sense of disappointment when it transpired that this new NI synth was a Reaktor Ensemble rather than a self-contained product (it also works in the free Reaktor Player), but that’s one of the few bad things that anyone’s had to say about Razor.
It’s based on additive synthesis, but presents this in a friendly format: two oscillators, twin filters and three effects sections are onboard. Although it was initially pigeon-holed as a dubstep/drum ‘n’ bass synth - and those who produce in these genres will certainly love it - Razor is also great for pads and other atmospheric tones.
Phat, user-friendly and fantastically affordable, this is fine synth that’s very much of its time.
FULL REVIEW: Native Instruments Razor
DAW of the year
This was the year that Reason truly came of age, with version 6 adding all the features from Record, its short-lived sister application, and three killer new effects devices.
The upshot of this is that not only is Reason now great for in-the-box music production, but its new-found audio recording capabilities mean that you can use it for capturing ‘real’ instruments, too.
Oh, and we should also give credit to Propellerhead for its ‘pay what you want’ upgrade offer for customers who already owned Reason and Record, even if its popularity did cause problems come launch day.
FULL REVIEW: Propellerhead Software Reason 6
Plug-in effect of the year
Dynamics plug-ins are hardly new, but this is one of the most configurable we’ve ever come across. It gives you compression, expansion/gating, transient shaping and limiting/clipping.
Thanks to the inclusion of both easy and advanced modes, Compassion can do a job for pretty much everyone, and it works in a wide variety of situations, too. Individual instruments, voices and busses can all benefit, and it’s a useful mastering tool as well.
Complex without being confusing, Compassion works brilliantly and sounds great.
FULL REVIEW: DMG Audio Compassion
Hardware synth of the year
History might show that the Kronos was the product that killed workstation development: not because it’s bad, but because it does so much that it’s hard to imagine a keyboard that could trump it.
The Kronos comes with a whopping nine different sound engines and is capable of producing some truly fantastic tones. There’s plenty of real-time control, plus the obligatory sequencer and sampler.
There’s so much to the Kronos that we couldn’t begin to summarise its full feature set here, so we should probably just round off by saying that it’s one of the most impressive keyboards we’ve ever encountered.
FULL REVIEW: Korg Kronos Workstation
Compact hardware synth of the year
Few products have been surrounded by as much pre-release hype as the OP-1, and given that it was in development for two years after it was originally announced, there was certainly plenty of time for said hype to build.
It’s to Teenage Engineering’s credit, then, that the finished article comes pretty close to delivering on its promise. Yes, there are those who just don’t get (or like) the concept of an expensive, retro-looking instrument with a button-based, non-velocity-sensitive keyboard, but its fun and surprisingly musical workflow is conducive to high productivity.
The OP-1 is definitely a luxury item, then, but don’t let its unique style make you believe that it’s lacking in substance.
BUY: Teenage Engineering OP-1 currently available from Soundslive
FULL REVIEW: Teenage Engineering OP-1
Stage piano of the year
If you want to know how highly regarded the Nord Stage pianos are, just go to a few gigs or watch some live music on TV. You’ll see loads of them.
Version 2 of the Stage improves significantly on its predecessor, most notably in the fact that you can now upload your own samples or those from the Nord Sample library. There’s a much-improved synth section, too, which provides you with an arpeggiator and a dedicated LFO.
Most importantly, though, the Stage 2 does acoustic/electric piano and organ sounds brilliantly, and plays very well too. Expect to see it at even more gigs next year.
FULL REVIEW: Clavia Nord Stage 2 HA88
Compact MIDI controller of the year
M-Audio got it just right with the Keystation Mini 32, neatly bisecting Akai’s LPK25 and Korg’s microKey to create a controller keyboard that strikes a great balance between size and playability.
Two and a half octaves’ worth of keys means that you can just about get away with two-handed playing, and iPad-compatibility (via the Camera Connection Kit) is a real bonus. It looks nice and there’s a chunky knob for you to grab, too.
FULL REVIEW: M-Audio Keystation Mini 32
Hybrid product of the year
The software that ships with this shrunken version of Maschine is exactly the same as the ‘full’ product, so there was never any question that this was going to be a feature-packed groove production tool. The only worry was that, in making a smaller controller, NI would have to make compromises on the workflow front.
While it’s true that Maschine Mikro doesn’t feel quite as ‘instant’ as its big brother, the good news is that it still flows very well. In fact, if you haven’t used Maschine before, you won’t feel like there’s anything missing at all. And of course, the downsizing means that this version is available at a substantially reduced price.
FULL REVIEW: Native Instruments Maschine Mikro
Monitor of the year
We didn’t think that there was much wrong with Adam’s original A7 monitor, but the A7X manages to improve on it in several respects.
There’s a new X-ART folder ribbon tweeter that offers flat response all the way up to 50kHz, while the 7-inch mid-woofer and baffle have been redesigned. The amps have been improved, too.
The end result is an extremely precise sound, with slightly less brightness at the top end than with the A7s (a good thing, in our book) and great stereo imaging.
There’s plenty of competition in this mid-range sector of the monitor market, but the A7X is one of the very best in its class.
FULL REVIEW: Adam Audio A7X
iOS app of the year
Wisely, Apple didn’t seek to recreate the Mac version of GarageBand when they ported it to iOS: this is very much a re-imagined piece of software that’s specifically tailored to mobile devices.
Evidence of this comes with the excellent Touch and Smart Instruments, which make creating respectable-sounding keyboard, drum and guitar parts easy and enjoyable. The sequencer works well, too, though the lack of MIDI editing remains a problem (something for version 2 perhaps?).
Crucially, projects started in GarageBand for iOS can be opened in GarageBand for Mac and Logic 9 too, so even if you don’t use it to finish tracks, you know that good ideas can easily have a life beyond your iDevice.
FULL REVIEW: GarageBand for iPad (now GarageBand for iOS)
Sampler of the year
If we could have given an award for the most insane product preview video, it would have gone to Elektron for the Octatrack trailer, but since we don’t have one of those, it’ll have to settle for receiving this best sampler gong.
The Octatrack is a hardware sampler that succeeds at a time when hardly anyone’s making hardware samplers any more. Its sampling engine is considerably more advanced than its rivals’, and there are powerful sequencing options, too.
Its features combine to create an instrument that works great in a studio or performance environment, and proves that hardware sampling can still be relevant and forward-thinking.
FULL REVIEW: Elektron Octatrack DPS-1
Liked this? Now read: The best guitar gear of 2011: guitars, amps, FX and more!
Get MusicRadar straight to your inbox: Sign up for the free weekly newsletter